Apart from the period 1967-1970, when Nigeria experienced civil strife, June 12, 1993, would also remain politically indelible in the post-independence annals of the nation.
About 27 years after, it is still a year that shapes Nigeria’s political foray.
The day has now become a ‘milestone’ for historians and political analysts to pinpoint when xraying the political sojourn of Africa’s most populous country.
But one man, even in death, has become the face of that era. He also serves as a symbol of Nigeria’s democratic experiences arising from the upheavals of that year.
Nigeria’s history, when passed down to posterity, will not be complete without the tale of a man who was born into penury, but strove to succeed in business and politics.
Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola was born into a poor family in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria on August 24, 1937.
He received his primary education at Baptist Boys’ High School.
He earned a scholarship to study economics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
Mr Abiola, a Muslim, had four wives: Simibiat Atinuke Shoaga, Kudirat Olayinki Adeyemi, Adebisi Olawunmi Oshin and Doyinsola Abiola. He is reported to have fathered over 40 children from these four marriages.
In 1992, Abiola was reportedly ordered to pay $20,000 a month in child support to a woman who claimed to be his wife.
His lawyers argued in a New Jersey court that Abiola had only four wives and that the woman was just one of his 19 concubines.
Mr Abiola is stillconsidered as one of the most successful businessmen in Nigerian history. He had successful businesses in publishing, media, sports, oil and gas.
From the position of deputy chief accountant at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital from 1965 to 1967, he became the then comptroller of Pfizer Products, Ltd. between 1967 and 1969.
He eventually rose to become the comptroller of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), Nigeria, Ltd from where he was promoted to vice president for ITT’s Africa and Middle East branch.
Mr Abiola founded the then flourishing Concord Press of Nigeria Ltd. He also served as the chief executive at Radio Communications Nigeria.
Noted for his deft business abilities, Mr Abiola established many companies.
Notable are Abiola Farms, Abiola Bookshops, Abiola Football Club, Wonder Bakeries, Radio Communications Nigeria, Concord Press, Concord Airlines, Habib Bank, Summit Oil International Ltd, Africa Ocean Lines, and Decca W.A. Ltd.
He was also known to have invested heavily in human capital through his philanthropic gestures while alive.
Estimated to have been worth over $2 billion, he reportedly sponsored over 2,500 students through the university and also donated to charities, especially sporting groups.
Bid for presidency
MKO, a Yoruba from the South-west threw his hat into the ring in 1993 when he contested for the presidency during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida.
Expectedly, MKO’s cultivation of friendship from various parts of the nation would prove beneficial for his aspirations and subsequent trials.
At that period, the Babangida regime, under its ‘stabilisation programme’ had inaugurated the Transitional Council and the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) to govern until presidential elections could be held.
By January 5, 1993, over 250 presidential candidates, including MKO, had been screened by the electoral umpire, NEC. The NEC had earlier banned many candidates and parties from campaigning.
By June 12, after a lengthy process filled with controversies, MKO chosen by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) contested against the National Republican Convention (NRC) candidate, Bashir Tofa.
He had another Muslim, Babagana Kingibe, as running mate.
Mr Abiola won by a landslide in the elections widely reported as free and fair but was denied his mandate by Mr Babangida who wanted to extend his rule.
Mr Babangida, wishing to truncate the process, subsequently petitioned the High Court to halt the process. On June 16, the announcement of the results was postponed.
But a group, Campaign for Democracy in defiance, released the ‘election results’, declaring Mr Abiola as the winner, with 19 of 30 states ‘in his kitty’.
The NDSC voided the election, saying it wanted to “protect the legal system and the judiciary from being ridiculed both nationally and internationally”.
MKO’s tortuous journey to regain his mandate thus began.
Quest for mandate
A few nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain, reacted to the development by withdrawing aid from the Nigerian regime.
Buoyed by the show of support locally and globally, MKO called for voters to embark on civil disobedience in an attempt to force the hand of the regime.
Undeterred, Mr Babangida banned Messrs Abiola and Tofa from participating in future elections.
The political unrest and street protests that erupted in the aftermath of the annulment of the June 12 polls filtered into 1994. Resentment built against military rule both locally and internationally.
Pressure mounted on the Babangida regime to leave power.
Earlier on July 31, a rattled Mr Babangida announced that an interim government would take over August 27.
He, however, ‘stepped aside’ a day before the new government, headed by his loyalist, Ernest Shonekan, assumed power.
All through the latter part of 1993, Nigeria witnessed massive unrest, especially in the South-west. Meanwhile, Mr Abiola remained abroad, rallying international support.
In November 1993, Mr Shoneken was unceremoniously sacked by another military general, Sani Abacha.
Truncated quest, controversial death
On June 11, 1994, after months of waiting endlessly for his mandate to be actualised from an unimpressed Mr Abacha, Mr Abiola returned to Nigeria.
He declared himself president before a massive crowd. He also called for an ‘uprising’ to pressurise the military to hand over power.
Mr Abacha, who himself was mulling a transition from military to civilian president, immediately clamped him into jail charging him with treason.
Hundreds of demonstrators thronged the streets of Lagos to demand Mr Abiola’s release.
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and many other activists, who spearheaded the protests, fled the country after subsequent clampdown on dissent by the regime.
Despite the bloody protests that erupted across the South-west, and swathes of the east and north, including a 10-day crippling strike by oil workers, Mr Abacha refused to budge.
However, Nigeria remained a pariah in the global community.
Mr Abiola remained in jail for four years. During that period, his wife, Kudirat, was assasinated while campaigning for his release.
Mr Abiola eventually died under controversial circumstances.
On July 7, 1998, just a few days before his planned release from prison by the new regime, Mr Abiola collapsed and died from alleged heart failure during a visit from a U.S. delegation.
Mr Abacha had died in office about a month earlier, also under controversial circumstances and had been replaced by another general, Abdulsalami Abubakar.
The new general promised to return Nigeria to a democratic path.
The country soon returned to democracy on May 29, 1999 after a short stint under Mr Abubakar, who handed over to another general-turned-democrat, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was also earlier clamped in jail by Mr Abacha.
Clamour for post-humous recognition
For many years after his death, pro-democracy activists and groups advocated a post-humous recognition for the late politician. Their cries were, however, not heeded by successive governments.
Part of the requests the group made was for the traditional yearly democracy day celebrated by Nigerians to be shifted from May 29 to June 12 to honour MKO, the validation of his victory at the polls and conferment of national honour.
The struggle eventually paid off last year when he was post-humously conferred with the highest honor in Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari and the official recognition of June 12 as Nigeria’s democracy day.
Are there lessons to be learnt from this era of Nigerian political history?
“The 2020 celebration of Democracy Day marks 21 year of uninterrupted civil administration in our dear country. This day provides us an opportunity to reflect on our journey as a nation, our achievements and struggles,” Mr Buhari said in the opening of his address on Friday. “It is a day to honour our founding fathers who toiled to establish our republic and every Nigerian who has worked tirelessly to sustain it.”
Political analyst and public commentator, Jide Ojo, also highlights the significance and lessons of June 12.
“The significance of June 12 cannot be overemphasised in Nigeria electoral democracy because on that day, way back 1993, Nigerians from all walks of life were united with one vote, one thought, and voted a pan-Nigerian as candidate of their choice,” he said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Friday. “That election has been judged by both the local and international election monitoring and observers groups as about the most free and fair election conducted in this country since we pathed electoral path. It was an election when a southerner of Yoruba extraction clearly defeated a northerner from feudal system (oligarch), Bashir Tofa. Even defeated Tofa in Kano State.”
“The significance of that shows that Nigerians can enforce to blind their eyes to ethno-religious sentiments,” he added.
“You could see that from that time till now, at the presidential level, no party has ever won the seat without playing the ethno-religious balance.,” he explained. “You now have a Muslim president and Christian vice-president or vice-versa, just to balance ethno-religious consideration.”
“But in 1993, we had two prominent (Muslim) candidates who Nigerians trusted with their votes and voted overwhelmingly across the length and breath of the country.”
He added that one of the uniqueness of that election was the method where people had to queue up behind the picture of their candidate to vote.
“Of course, a lot of people believe it was not a balanced mode of election but I can say that it was indeed a home-grown system,” Mr Ojo noted. “It is just unfortunate that the military did not allow MKO to enjoy the benefits of that victory.”
He said also among the lessons learnt was the openness of the election system which later resulted into “many homes being broken down, landlords witch-hunting their tenants for voting a different candidate because they could see them. Election system has improved as secrecy (secret ballot) has been the key in the voting process.”
“It was also a period when the country experimented with a two-party system. Yes, now we can argue that we now run multi-parties system even though it’s actually a two party state where we have PDP, APC and others,” Mr Ojo added. “What this means is that the two parties have evolved without being degraded into existing. The evolution that has taken place is that we do not decree the two parties into existence, rather they evolve through merger and acquisition.”
“For the first time in Nigeria political history, we have the merger of four legacy political parties who successfully dislodged the behemoth, PDP. That is also a form of progress that could be alluded to June 12 incidence,” he explained further.
He also said in terms of technological advance, the mode of party registration, voting and even transmitting election results “has really moved from what was obtainable in 1993.”
“Lessons that Nigeria should have learnt from June 12 are many,” the analysts summarised. “Some of which include political tolerance, and ability to see election as a better means of governance than the military regime.”
“People made that conscious effort to vote then because they were tired of the military. Apart from that, the ultimate significance and lesson from June 12 is in the personality of MKO Abiola who was martyred as a result of his attempt to validate his mandate,” Mr Ojo added.